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New Mexico Wild Rangers Rehabilitate our Wilderness Trails

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By 'Backpacker Bill' Kemsley

About two weeks ago my wife and I met Wilderness Ranger Atieno Ouma on the Santa Barbara Trail in the Pecos Wilderness.

She is a cheery, young woman with whom we had a friendly chat. We didn't realize it at the time, but Atieno was counting us as "encounters" in her Solitude Monitoring Encounter study.

She left us to continue backpacking five more miles into No Fish Lake, which is nestled beneath the final ascent to the 50-mile Skyline Trail that traverses from peak to peak along the Santa Barbara Divide of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

When Ouma meets up with her partner, Ezra Sage, at No Fish in the wilderness their work will begin in earnest.

First, they will conduct a 10-point evaluation of the campsite's condition.

Second, they'll check to see if evidence exists that users camped within 50 feet of a trail or 300 feet of water. They will look for litter, tree damage, campfire rings, trampled soil compaction, noxious weeds and such.

They will camp there for the night with volunteers who'll come in to help them.

Before leaving in the morning, they'll clean up any trash, disassemble campfire rings and restore the site to a more primitive condition.

They will then hike still deeper into the wilderness to count Solitude Monitoring Encounters with other hikers, clean and maintain trails and find another campsite to rehabilitate.

And she gets paid for hiking. Wow!

Of course, she too is enormously grateful to have this job from June to September.

Ouma and Sage are part of a ranger contingent sent into Northern New Mexico wilderness areas by New Mexico Wild.

New Mexico Wild's work-study project has a four-fold objective:

1. Count the number of encounters with hikers, like me.

2. Assess conditions of trails, campsites and identify invasive species in the interior of each wilderness.

3. Clean up and restore campsites to more primitive conditions.

4. Educate the public about the value of wilderness areas and engage volunteers in wilderness stewardship.

So you see, Atieno accomplished two of these goals in meeting us on the Santa Barbara Trail. She counted us and courteously treated us to a bit of education in the value of federally designated wilderness areas. We appreciated it enough to want to know more.

It was sheer coincidence we met Atieno, for she was not working for the Carson National Forest, but the Santa Fe National Forest.

Since the Santa Fe National Forest was closed due to forest fire risk at the time, she was sent to work in the northern end of the Pecos on the Santa Barbara Trail, which is in the Carson National Fores and was still open at the time. Even though this small section of the Pecos is in the Carson, the Santa Fe National Forest manages it.

Working on wilderness near Taos

Two more of the 10 New Mexico Wild rangers this year, Rhett Spencer and Ben Mortensen, are working in the Wheeler Peak, Latir Peak, Columbine-Hondo and Cruces Basin wildernesses of the Carson National Forest.

I mention these trails because the rangers have even fixed that uber-steep pitch up the last stretch of the Yerba Trail to the ridge. They said that the steep son-of-a-pitch scramble was a huge off-trail mistake, due to trees blowing down and closing off the trail's last switchback route in that section.Spencer and Mortensen are working the wilderness areas in the Carson National Forest nearest Taos. Imagine how extensive the work area is for just those Ski Valley Trails - Yerba, Italiano, Manzanita, Gavilan - all the way up to the Lobo Peak ridge. Add to that the Columbine-Twining Recreational Trail across Gold Hill, and that's just one of the four wilderness areas.

Sounds like a huge job for two rangers. But they have a lot of extra help.

They're attracting dozens of hikers to volunteer for the project, already 83 volunteers this summer.

Not all volunteers, though, need do such heavy lifting. You can volunteer for instance, to take your own wilderness hike to count encounters with other hikers.

Or choose to participate with rangers and volunteers giving talks to groups: students, clubs, any type of gathering.

And here's the one I like. Go for a hike with a ranger. You can be with a ranger for a day.

The New Mexico Wild Partnership

Bjorn Frederikson, of the U.S. Forest Service Regional Office and Tisha Broska of New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, put the New Mexico Wild partnership together.

In its trial run last year, they put six rangers into the field with such success that they've increased their efforts this year.

And rangers are already 50 percent more productive than last year's test run. Key measures of their effectiveness are listed in the By the Numbers box.

Both the Forest Service and Wilderness Alliance each pick up half of the funding for the wilderness ranger program. But when rangers recruit volunteers, the dollar value of the volunteers' hours count toward the contribution from New Mexico Wild.

Spencer and Mortensen boasted of having raised over 1,000 hours of volunteer time for their wilderness work. And that exceeded their requirement to raise 600 volunteer hours.

What Is a Designated Wilderness?

The Wilderness Act describes a wilderness as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. It is an area of undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.

All motorized vehicles and tools are banned from these lands. Even bicycles are not allowed. Only foot and horse travel are permitted.

But hikers and horses are having their impact. No place is this more evident than in the Wheeler Peak Wilderness, especially around Williams, Horse Shoe and Lost lakes.

It took time and effort to set aside wilderness areas.

I am an old enough geezer to recall returning home from navy combat in World War II to the frantic economic boom trying to catch up after the wartime constraints.

Our transportation system began booming in the 1950s. President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched the Interstate Highway System meant to tie all 48 lower states together in a network of limited-access highways that we have today.

The boom created concerns for conservationists, particularly federal lands forest rangers. They became increasingly concerned about preserving roadless areas of pristine federal lands.

Forest rangers Bob Marshall, Howard Zahniser and Benton MacKay, for example, founded the Wilderness Society to lobby for setting aside still unspoiled lands.

Howard Zahniser wrote the first draft of the Wilderness Act in 1956. But it took nine more years and 65 rewrites before the 1964 Wilderness Act was finally signed into law.

Those who would like their special interests allowed access to our precious set-aside lands, however, continually threaten wilderness law.

It's partly why the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and the Forest Service set up the wilderness ranger program.

Work In the Wilderness Interior

So, the first 2-mile sections of prime trails in the wilderness areas closest to Taos, Wheeler, Latir and Columbine-Hondo, are the most heavily used and hence receive the greatest attention.With such a small staff of rangers assigned by the U.S. Forest Service to care for trails, it is common sense that they've focused the major portion of their working hours on the most heavily used sections of trails even with the aid of volunteers.

Forest Service Ranger Craig Saum, with his summer rangers and volunteers, does a remarkable job of caring for these sections of the 330 miles of trail in the Carson National Forest

But, that leaves a considerable portion of wilderness trails neglected, with some trails even abandoned. The Latir Wilderness has trails that have fallen into complete neglect and are no longer even identified as trails.

The Columbine-Hondo National Recreation Trail is well maintained in the 2-mile entry sections at both ends. But it has had barely any attention on its remaining 10-mile interior section.

Until that is, the New Mexico Wild rangers, with the aid of dozens of volunteers, cleared all the downed trees, rehabilitated the campsites and installed wilderness signs.

How to become a Ranger in 2019

New Mexico Wild will be announcing its needs next March. It will be highly competitive, as you can imagine.

Ouma said she applied for a ranger slot for this year's season as soon as she heard about the program. She had to compete against 90 applicants for a spot. And among those 90 were some repeats who limited the draw, since last year's rangers would naturally have an edge, reducing the opportunity even more.

Email New Mexico Wild This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to apply early in 2019. Or check the website: nmwild.org/about-us/careers. If you need additional information call New Mexico Wild Deputy Director Tisha Broska at (505) 843-8696.

Senator Heinrich: Gila not appropriate for flyovers

Thursday, August 16, 2018
Gila not appropriate for flyovers
Dear Friend,
I hope you can take a moment to read and share an op-ed I wrote in the Silver City Daily Press about why I am calling on the Air Force not to expand airspace over the Gila Wilderness. I have heard from many concerned citizens about this issue, and I agree with them that military overflights through the Gila are not the right approach.
Please continue to stay in touch with me about this and other issues important to you and your community.
MARTIN HEINRICH United States Senator
 Heinrich Gila overflights letter 8
The Gila is not appropriate for flyovers
By U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich
I am calling on the Air Force not to expand airspace over the Gila and surrounding areas. Especially when there are other more appropriate overflight options, it makes no sense to threaten what makes the Gila so special and unnecessarily create hostility between the public and the military in New Mexico.
Nearly 100 years ago, a forester named Aldo Leopold recognized the beauty and irreplaceable value of an untrammeled area of mountains, rivers, and mesas in southwestern New Mexico. As lands across the West were being broken up by development, roads, and railroads, Leopold proposed that the headwaters of the Gila River should be preserved as the nation's first road-less, unimpeded wilderness. Today, so many of us are grateful for Leopold's foresight.
Some of my best memories are the camping trips I've been able to take with my wife, Julie, and our two sons in wild places like the Gila Wilderness. I have always been drawn to places like the Gila-landscapes where you can get away from the cell phones, computers and everything else that tends to clutter the mind. Backpacking trips into places like McKenna Park and Turkey Feather Pass, the Jerky Mountains and the Gila River canyon have given me the time and space to grow closer to my family and friends and reflect.
From the outset, local residents have expressed steady and firm opposition to the Air Force's proposal for the Gila and have made it abundantly clear that low-level flights and flares in wilderness areas would be disruptive to their way of life, threaten public safety and damage the local economy.
The outdoor recreation opportunities in the Gila are integral to the quality of life and economy of Grant and Catron Counties. Visitors from around the world are drawn to the region's hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing, and peaceful wilderness. Many local residents-from retirees to young entrepreneurs-choose to live in the area because of its unrivaled natural surroundings. The military would also lose more than it would gain from the proposal. New Mexico already has in place a number of airspace agreements for military aircraft training locations, also known as Military Operation Areas, which have been based on positive and mutually beneficial relationships between the military and the public for over 30 years. Reshaping and expanding the existing airspace agreement over the Gila risks jeopardizing the appropriate balance that has been in place for decades.
Throughout the airspace evaluation, I have urged the Air Force to coordinate with local stakeholders and to address community concerns. If the Air Force listens to those who know New Mexico best, I am confident they will reach the same conclusion I have: that an expansion of airspace over the Gila would be a mistake, and that optimizing airspace elsewhere would enable the Air Force to better train its pilots and ensure the positive relationship with the military in New Mexico endures.
This is about striking the right balance. New Mexico has maintained a good working relationship between the military and the surrounding communities for years by listening to community concerns and making smart decisions. Today, that means recognizing that overflights through the Gila are not the right approach.

Celebrate 50 years of Wild and Scenic with more designations

Everyone has a river story.

A favorite story of mine is when my dad took our family on a rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon when I was a teenager, in 1967. At that time, there was a proposal to dam the river in the canyon, flooding it for 27 miles. My father, Stewart, was secretary of the Interior under President Johnson. He said the secretary “should never make armchair judgments on national conservation issues.” He wanted to see the run of the river and canyons for himself. He wanted to “let the canyons speak for themselves.”

The beauty of the canyons and river did speak for themselves. And they convinced my father that the Colorado shouldn’t be dammed. At the end of the trip, he held a press conference and said we're not going to build dams in the Grand Canyon. It's a magnificent place, and we should leave it alone. And that was that.

In New Mexico, we know “agua es vida” -- water is life. New Mexicans depend on our rivers to irrigate our farms, bring water to our cities and villages, support fish and wildlife and recharge our aquifers, and as places to spend time as families to fish, float, and play. Rivers protect water quality and sacred and cultural sites and support local businesses serving recreationists and tourism -- like fly fishing shops, guiding services, commercial rafting, restaurants, and hotels.

October 2 marks the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. We have much to celebrate this year.

The Act took four years to make its way through Congress to President Johnson's desk, but Democrats and Republicans worked together to make it happen. Back then, they understood that our common heritage and our national treasures shouldn’t have a party label.

I couldn’t be prouder that my father helped shepherd this landmark legislation through Congress. He understood the value of rivers and the urgency to protect the most special from dams, diversions, and development. For him, it was about balance, common sense, and leaving a legacy for our children, grandchildren, and beyond.

New Mexicans can be proud that one of the first eight rivers designated under the Act was part of the Rio Grande. That segment flows through the iconic Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. Later, sections of the Chama, the Pecos, and the East Fork of the Jemez were designated and now enjoy the protected status as Wild and Scenic Rivers. 

I’ve been proud to carry on my father’s legacy of working in Washington for New Mexico to protect important lands and waters. When it comes to beautiful rivers, New Mexico is lucky. But with that luck, comes responsibility.  

After 50 years, we’ve made some progress, but still only about 1/10 of 1 percent of the approximately 108,014 river miles in New Mexico are protected – only 124 miles.

That is not enough.

I know that many New Mexicans are working to protect the Gila River, to keep it wild and free flowing. The river runs through the Gila Wilderness – the first designated wilderness in our country, in 1924. Its role in New Mexico’s history, economy, and geography can’t be overstated. I appreciate the efforts to build a strong and diverse coalition of people who care about the river and want to keep it the way it is.  It’s vital that people come together to protect it and to assure that it can nourish future generations. I’m excited to see what we can do working together to protect the Gila and our other precious rivers.

We are all the beneficiaries of the vision and determination of people like my father, and we honor them during this anniversary year. But they also challenge us to look forward with renewed commitment, with renewed determination. We owe that to future generations. I hope we leave them a New Mexico where our most special rivers and lands are protected. 

Tom Udall is the senior senator from New Mexico.

Monuments to Main Street features hikes, aerial tours, rafting and more

Monuments to Main Street features hikes, aerial tours, rafting and more

Cheryl Fallstead, For the Sun-News Published 3:28 p.m. MT Aug. 29, 2018 | Updated 3:52 p.m. MT Aug. 29, 2018

This is the first of four columns informing readers about Monuments to Main Street.

LAS CRUCES - It’s almost September and as temperatures cool, it’s a great time to explore everything that makes our part of southern New Mexico special. Monuments to Main Street (M2M) — a monthlong celebration of the national monuments, people, history and culture of Las Cruces, Mesilla, and beyond — has many activities on the first weekend of the month, Labor Day, including the Hatch Chile Festival and Harvest Wine Festival, plus hikes, aerial tours, river rafting, yoga at Dripping Springs, and a bicycle ride to the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.

The full schedule of activities is at Monuments 2 Mainstreet.

M2M will celebrate its third-year kickoff from 4 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 8, with a fiesta in Las Cruces’ Mesquite Historic District at Klein Park, 155 N. Mesquite St., with live music by Phat Soul, Folklorico dancing, stagecoach rides, an arts and farmers market, Chocolate on the Camino Real Trail, and the "What's Your Las Cruces?" oral history project.

The goal of M2M is to get people outside, enjoying the natural beauty of our desert southwest, while introducing them to new activities and taking them to special places they may not explore on their own. True to its moniker, the outings, tours, and activities take participants to our regional monuments, White Sands National Monument, Prehistoric Trackways National Monument and the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, as well as activities right on the main streets of Las Cruces and Mesilla.

More: Monuments to Main Street will celebrate OMDP in September

This year, M2M offers even more excursions, including a bikepacking campout, jeep tours into OMDP, a Panoramic Peaks tour in the Sierra de las Uvas, a hike of Picacho Peak, and tours of Slot Canyon, along with returning favorites such as the Old West stagecoach ride, aerial tours of the Mesilla Valley and World War II bombardier training sites, and river rafting excursions.

Monument tours are offered by a variety of groups, including New Mexico Wild, the Friends of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, the Green Chamber of Commerce, Sierra Club, Southern New Mexico Trail Alliance, Mesilla Valley Audubon Society, and a local company, Southwest Expeditions.

Jeff Steinborn, southern New Mexico director for New Mexico Wild, notes that the city of Las Cruces was an integral part of the event, with Visit Las Cruces promoting activities and helping with the kickoff celebration.

“In addition to promoting our national monuments, the city has also recently made outdoor recreation a targeted sector in its economic development and tourism efforts," he said. "We are actively working together to grow the outdoor recreation economy and celebrate the importance of our protected public lands.”

Here’s a schedule of the activities for the first week of M2M so you can go enjoy those public lands. Get more details on these activities at Monuments 2 Mainstreet. Note that several outings, including the aerial and rafting tours, require reservations, which you can easily make from this website. Get ready to fill your calendar!

September 1:

  • Hatch Chile Festival, $10 per car (September 1-2)
  • Harvest Wine Festival $25 (September 1-3)
  • Organ Mountains City to Sky Plane Tour, $90
  • River Rafting on the Rio Grande, $25
  • Yoga in the Monument, activity free, $5 park entry per car
  • Guided Hike at Achenbach Canyon, free

September 2:

  • WWII Bombardier Targets Aerial Tour, $90
  • Slot Canyon Tour, free
  • River Rafting on the Rio Grande, $25

September 6:

  • Monumental Loop Ride with Friends of OMDP, free

September 7:

  • First Friday Downtown Art Ramble, free

September 8:

  • Organ Mountains City to Sky Plane Tour, $90
  • Youth Archery Lessons, free
  • Guided Hike of Soledad Canyon
  • Billy the Kid Tour, $25
  • Yoga in the Monument, activity free, $5 park entry per car
  • Monuments to Main Street Kick-off Fiesta, free

September 9:

  • Photographing Birds of the Organ Mountains, free
  • El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro tour, $25
  • Slot Canyon Tour, free